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Shlomi Elkabetz on Fighting for ‘Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem’

Shlomi Elkabetz on Fighting for 'Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem'

Sister-brother directing team Ronit Elkabetz and Shlomi Elkabetz did not get a foreign Oscar nom for their Israeli divorce drama “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem.” But it was nominated for 12 Ophirs and won seven including best film, supporting actor, actor, actress, screenplay, editing and a shared best directing prize.

The film played Cannes, Toronto, San Sebastian, London, AFI Fest and more. Ronit Elkabetz also stars as the title character, a woman fighting to get a divorce in Israel, where the husband must give consent. This is the directing pair’s third feature after 2004’s “To Take a Wife” and 2008’s “7 Days.” All are connected, much like Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy, and star a slowly aging Shlomi as a powerful woman inspired by the siblings’ mother.

Now living in Paris, Shlomi Elkabetz and I sat down to talk about the film, which just opened in select theaters via Music Box Films, at Sneak Previews.

So what’s the writing process like for you?

Basically, it’s the same for every film: we travel somewhere, we go for a couple of weeks — three weeks — we have an idea we want to do, and then we buy a lot of food, close ourselves in our apartment for real, we hardly go out, we write for hours a day. We sit in the same room. Sometimes she’s in the living room, I’m in the kitchen. We shout at each other. We go to the corridor, we stay for a talk, then we go to sleep, we wake up. We’re kind of a couple for the whole period of the work.

Sometimes, for one year, we work together every day, from morning until evening. We talk a lot, we prepare a lot. Eventually, when we come to shoot, on the set, we hardly speak. After we spoke for this one year, on the set, we kind of look at each other. I’m looking at her and I know if she’s satisfied; she’s looking at me, she knows if I’m satisfied. We’ve been working for twelve years together, and we’ve known each other for forty years. We have this connection between us.

You did the first film, which was different from the second film. Explain the differences in trajectory between the three projects? What’s the evolution?

When Ronit and I decided we wanted to make the films…we didn’t go to film school, but we had an idea. We wanted to say something, and we didn’t even know exactly what we wanted to project. I was in New York at the time; Ronit was living in Paris. She started her French career like fifteen years ago. We met in New York, and we decided we were going to do a film about a brother and sister — but a boy and a girl. That was our idea, and we started to write it.

Soon enough, it took maybe a few days of work, we realized the story is not at all about this little boy. It’s about the mother, which is our mother. Understanding that, the idea for the movie immediately transformed from something autobiographical into something personal — meaning it was somebody else’s point-of-view on life, rather than trying to recreate occasions in our life on the screen. When we understood we wanted to tell the story of our mother, we said, “Okay, we’re not going to make one film. To tell the real arc of the story, we’re going to have to make three films.”

So that was the beginning.

Yeah, that was the decision. The first part was, we just wanted to see if we could get it done. Realizing whether it’s possible to be free. I mean, maybe she wanted to be free, but first she has to believe she can be free, and that’s the first thing in the film.

So these two actors play the couple in three films, and this is the third.

Yes. You can actually see them. We shot for the last twelve years, and you can see them growing. It’s quite amazing to see them ten years ago. They really look much, much younger, and they’re at home. It’s the same couples you see here, but they’re at home with kids and a family life.

What are the names of the films?

The first one is “To Take a Wife,” the second one is “The Seven Days.” That’s the story of the whole family, the Moroccan family, mourning one brother that died. In that part, Vivianne has a small story — it’s not the lead story of the film — but also, there, she’s trying to live, she’s trying to break the society barrier in order to be free. The last one you can get is Vivianne in the State. It’s the final frontier. What we did is, we said, “What would happen if we take this couple that we are dealing with for the last ten years, what would happen if this couple were to get a divorce in Israel? What would be their case?” Then we would just put it into the Israel system. We kind of got away from our personal story, because our mother never set foot in court. So this probably is an imaginary biography of our mother. If the first film was an actual biography, this one is an imaginary one.

She never got divorced?

No. My parents live together.

I didn’t know this is what you had to go through in order to get a divorce in Israel. I had no clue. It’s archaic, to say the least.

It’s completely archaic. Maybe we should give a slight background. What you saw in the film is the law in Israel. There is no civil way to get married or to get a divorce — meaning, when you want to get a divorce, you have to go through the courts. Maybe 70-75% of divorces in Israel are easy divorces, because men also want to get a divorce. Not all men are Elisha; some men want to get a divorce as well. I mean, even the couple want to get a divorce, it’s not a quick process, but it’s happening and it’s not a torment. The problem starts when the husband says “no,” because the law enforces you with the right to say “no.” That’s the law: he can say “no.”

This is where the problem starts. It’s true that many couples in Israel are trying to bypass the law today by writing different agreements, but coming to life, it’s not a real marriage, and some will find themselves having to get married because of different reasons in the future of their lives. But the actual law gives the husband so much power. So much power. Just the idea of trying to get a divorce, knowing that your husband could say “no,” immediately puts the women of Israel in a lower position. If I know that I want to go, and somebody can tell me “no,” I probably would give up my rights before I fight for them — just to be free. Meaning, in that process of getting a divorce, women are in a very low place, today, in Israel, compared to anyone.

The film opened to good numbers in Israel, but caused a furor.

Yeah. Actually, something quite amazing happened. I mean, the film premiered at Cannes this year, and it started to pour slowly into the consciousness of the Israeli society. A lot of people were talking about the film. The film was mentioned from here to there, then we released it in the summer. We waited for the war to finish, then there was no fear. Then something quite amazing happened: the film was and still is playing, and, in the first few weeks, you couldn’t even get a ticket to see the film. So a lot of people went to see the film, and it’s worth mentioning that you cannot enter the courts in Israel. It’s impossible to come and see a divorce trial, meaning it’s the first time Israeli audiences can see what might come for them one day.

So how did you get the information about what it’s like?

I did the research. I learned the lawyers’ laws, I sat in the corridors, I gave my script to different lawyers and claimers to examine my script until I finalized a very accurate script. So, what happened in Israel: the film is a cultural event, but, alongside that, it became a political event, all of a sudden. The film was endorsed by all different parties of society and the government — different parliament members. Conversations around the film started to arouse. Like, what happened was, a chief was asked repeatedly, when he was interviewed, “Have you seen ‘Gett’? Have you seen ‘Gett’?” He’d say, “No, I don’t go to the cinema. Of course I didn’t see ‘Gett.’”

He was asked again and again and finally, they took a decision that they’re going to show the film in an annual courts convention. It’s incredible. When I heard it, I was screaming in my room. I had a screening that night, and I was sitting in the screening, and all I could see was the film from their point of view. All I could imagine was them sitting in the audience and looking at themselves, wondering what they would think when they saw the film. For the first time, they would see the trial from the point-of-view of a woman. So this is just incredible, knowing that just, like, big parties in Israel, throughout 70 years of history, trying to bring them to the table to talk about the law, but the law never passed first reading in Israel.

Why not?

It’s very profound. It’s the definition. The whole definition of who is Jewish and who is Israeli is written in those laws. We need to —

So it can’t be part of the regular legal process?

We cannot change the religious law. The religious law is the religious law. It’s like saying there is no God. But it’s not about that. We don’t aim to change the religious law. What we aim for is to create an alternative. For those women who are being refused, we aim to create an alternative. I think, for those women, we’ll be sold, because men will understand that their “no” is no longer valid, so they would say “yes.” He says in the film, “You should take a man and hate him until his last breath, until he say ‘yes.’” And that was discussed only 500 years ago, because people are trying to change this law for decades, thousands of years they’re trying to change this law. So I say, instead of taking the stick and hitting the husband until he says “no,” this is going to be the new stick. The civil law where he says “no” is not valid anymore, eventually he would say “yes.”

And then you could keep, for people who are still married in a religious way, keep the beauty of tradition. Of course. Why not? But then there is always an option. There is a security net you could always fall onto. That’s what we’re aiming for now, and the film is doing a tremendous job. It’s quite amazing. I must be honest: I knew the film is explosive in so many ways, but I didn’t think that would happen and I didn’t think it would happen so fast after the film is out.

Is it partly because of the way you filmed it? Explain your thought process behind picking different camera angles and points of view, how you’re presenting these arguments.

You know, we wrote the script. Ronit and I are very fast writers. We cooked it for a long time, but when it came to writing, we wrote it very fast. So the script is really quite a quick process, but it took us a long time to figure out how to shoot this film, because the script is radical as it is, being told by the woman. Eventually we had in our mind a tennis game. The court is a tennis game; you just turn your head from place to place.

Then we said, “We want to be a part of this game,” meaning, what would happen if, instead of shooting the tennis game from the point-of-view of the audience, we’ll shoot it from the point-of-view of different actors in the film — whether it’s the actor or the guy that tries to take the ball. And what will happen if we shoot the ball coming toward our camera at 200 miles an hour, and, just before it hits our camera, we cut to another point of view. Meaning, our decision was not to shoot the court as you see it in a tennis court. We decided only to shoot in the placement of the actors.

How many cameras did you use?

We used only one camera, and the shoot was, like, eight weeks long. That was a very expensive film, because we used a single camera, and then some actors would wait for three or four days until we get to them. Because, when you shoot the different points of view, of course we couldn’t cover the whole room. We would shoot, I don’t know, for seven actors, a minimum of 49 shots per scene. We couldn’t afford it, and we didn’t want to do it. We wanted to make choices, so we really shoot between 12-16 shots per scene, but it was a very long process to discover every minute and shoot it from every point of view. It’s like a silent film.

You use her silence so effectively, and when she explodes, it works.

When we came to shoot, we said, “How do we shoot a film where we have two lead characters and they’re not talking most of the film.” They have only three scenes where she talks, and Elisha has a scene-and-a-half. That’s it — they’re not talking — but these are the characters that carry the film. It’s not a film about two lawyers, but we have to shoot this silent film. We did that every time we shot a scene with the talking actress. It took us, like, half-a-day to shoot it, and then we took just two, three, four days to shoot the looks. We shoot around her. Who’s looking at whom? Who’s reacting to what? Who’s reacting to what smile, to what sound, and so on. That we developed on the shooting days.

A lot of daggers going back and forth between the two of them.

Of course. And, of course, we kind of took advantage of the setting, so we could take a lot of low angles — a lot of high angles, on the opposite. So we could deconstruct the room in many different ways.

Does the film reflect the way the majority of Israel feels about relationships and power dynamics between men and women? I’m curious how much this represents the mainstream.

I think it’s all about the power. It’s about who has the power. Today, man has the power to say “no,” to decide, and to take whatever they want. If they use it. They say, “You want a divorce? All right. I want the house and custody to be on Sunday and Mondays, whatever, from 2 to 4 p.m.” Whatever they want, meaning: it’s all about the power. However you look at it — whether the man grants you the divorce or not — it’s about power. Even if I’m a liberal man and I say, “Yeah, if she asks for the divorce, I’m going to give it to her.” I don’t want you to give it to her. Freedom is hers. So, if you go to language and the way we define things, yes: it boils down to that. Who has the power? The men.

And then, of course, if you want to deconstruct it when going to society, you’ll find it in different levels of thinking. Because it’s not only that. It’s the design of the way we think and the design of the way we behave. If, in a certain place, it’s okay to smoke pot and you see somebody with a joint, it’s fine. If it’s forbidden, then he’s a criminal. If it’s okay for a gay couple to get married, then it’s fine. It’s okay to kiss on the street. If it’s not, then it’s a crime — meaning, like, if Viviane is a criminal in the eyes of a society. She’s being judged, it’s a crime. This is the trial of a woman who wants to be free.

Now, if the law enables the man the right to say “no,” it designs the way we think. We think we deserve the right to say “no,” and we think we are going to grant people to the people who ask it from us. And this is… society’s way of thinking is designed by the law they choose to keep or to change.

Going forward, do you think you’re going to tell more of this story?

I think I will be back to Viviane and Elisha. Because Viviane, to me, she’s an amazing character. I’ve been following her for the last 12 years and I’ve been following her all my life.

It reminds me a bit of Richard Linklater’s “Before” series. Have you been at all influenced by his work?

I love his work. He’s a director that I like. I like his work very much.

Because he and the actors became very invested and wanted to follow these characters. That’s how you feel now.

Yeah, definitely. I mean, Viviane… you know, what I like about Viviane is that she’s progressive. Now that the end’s here, I would like to see what Viviane will do, how Viviane will be. What kind of a free woman she will be. Because freedom is something you have to acquire. Viviane is free, but now I want to see her acquiring freedom, which is a whole different process, a whole different life.

But she won’t be with another man.

Says who? [Audience applauds]

Audience member: Could you give a better explanation for the last scene?

She’s walking back to the court to get her divorce. You know, we referred her to different shots that influenced us. Basically, films that were shot by men about women’s trials — like “Joan of Arc” by Robert Bresson. In all those films, you find this woman, whether she’s being led to her end, to her salvation, or some sort of salvation, we really kind of love these shots. We were very attracted to them from the beginning, this shot stayed with us for a long time, and we decided to do… it’s not an homage, but it’s something that influenced by us. These films by Dreyer and Bresson are films we watched a lot of times and are part of our inspiration for “Gett.” It’s like a traditional shot that we chose to shoot for this film.

But I see it as… for me, it’s a happy shot, because Viviane is going back to court to receive her divorce. It’s a happy tragedy. Because the tragedy is there. The price Viviane is paying is very high. Even though she’s getting her divorce, the price she’s paying is tremendous. The price is not promising to Elisha that she will never be with another man. The price is what she’s paid all her life. She paid a lifetime price, so it’s a tragedy, in that sense. But the end of it is that Viviane is free. If you look at the death of Israeli society with this film, you can ask, “Who’s freeing Viviane?” The same place that deprives the freedom — which is the country, which is the society, which is Israel — is also the place that enables this freedom. Because of the encounter between modern society with a somewhat ancient law. That’s what happens today. So it’s in-between those two places.

Audience member: What does “Gett” refer to?

“Gett” refers to the paper you get when you’re getting a divorce.

It’s the paper he’s putting in her hand, right?

This is “Gett.” We used this term today in Israel. When you say, “I want to get a divorce,” you say, “I want a Gett.” That’s what we say.

Audience member: Viviane became secular and really seemed to lose her community along the way as well. What does she need the divorce for?

For Viviane to become free, she has to see herself as a free woman. Of course she sees herself as a free woman: she lives alone, she works for herself. But the question is, “Is it enough when you perceive yourself as a free person to be free? Do we need the society to perceive us as free in order to be free or not?” Meaning, if I’m a slave and my honor released me, but people looked at me, and they see me as black when they look at me, am I free? Or do I need the whole society to recognize me as a free person in order to be free. That’s the question. Viviane is free because she’s a free spirit. The movie may be a little dark, but Viviane is a free spirit. She’s not a dark character, not at all.

But when Viviane walks in the street of her neighborhood, what will they say? “She’s a divorced woman,” “she a free woman,” or “she’s married”? She has a husband, meaning she belongs to someone. In order for society to perceive her as a free person, that’s why she’s fighting for it. I was showing this film in Hamburg a few weeks ago, and I was asked this question by a woman. She said, “No, it’s okay. She could be.” And I said, “If it’s okay, let’s make it so that all women who want to get a divorce have to receive their husband’s consent. Are you okay with that?” Of course, just the idea inspired, “Of course not. None of us want to be the property of somebody else.” We want to have the ability to decide to go when we want to go — even if we’re making a mistake.

Audience member: Throughout the court, they ask the husband hit her. If, in fact, he had hit her, would that be grounds for a divorce?

No. Not at all.

Audience member: If she’s committed adultery, would that be?

It would be easier for him to divorce her, but he doesn’t have to. He could say “no.”

Audience member: In most societies, a gun-to-the-head promise is not meant to be kept. It seems like a situation is happening here. Does he ask her to keep the promise?

He asks her not to go with anyone else. At that moment, I boiled it down to one man and one woman. It doesn’t matter what. It’s enough that Elisha is jealous and couldn’t bear the thought of her walking in the street with another man. That’s why he asked her and Viviane says “yes.” What she does at that moment is just take the opportunity. What she’ll do with that later… it’s her choice. She can keep the promise or not. Elisha is not a violent man. There’s not even one time mentioned in the film where Elisha was violent against her, so you never think, “If there’s one issue, he’ll come after her and kill her.” It’s not a thought that passes in our minds.

What we think, the only one thing, is, “Will she be able to keep her promise.” I decided to do it this way because, at this moment, we judge Viviane. Right from the beginning, we continue to judge her honestly. We say, “Is she going to keep her promise? Is she going to be a loyal, divorced woman?” This is a big question. I kept it like this because, if I had made a film about the situation that was happening with women in Israel fifty years ago, that wouldn’t be the end. I kept it like this to say it is still like this. We still question Viviane’s loyalty, even after the divorce. This is the answer to the last scene.

Did you have any arguments about this sort of thing? Were there serious issues in deciding what to do?

No. We wrote this in, and it took us time to understand why we wrote it like this. When we wrote it, we said… of course, we worked on it a little, but then we decided that’s the end, but when we discovered it, we were excited because we knew. We understood what we wrote at this moment. If we write a scene where the film ends and the audiences still judge Viviane for honesty and loyalty to her husband, this is the whole film. That’s what the whole film is about. “Is she a good wife? Will she be a good divorcee?” You know? [Laughs] We ask it.

An honest woman.

An honest woman. Even I ask it myself, sometimes, and I say, “Is she promising him that?” or “Is he asking that?” I think of Elisha, because I know my characters, and I say, “Is he really asking that?”

You feel sorry for him.

I never judge him, because we are trying to find what I love in each one of them.

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